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H.W. Brands Interview

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INT: ... what was actually going on with the economic versus what it tried the show people?


BRANDS: Well, the Columbian Exposition of 18...


BRANDS: The Columbian Exposition of 1893 was one of the first world's fairs. And it was an opportunity for American and foreign industrialists, ah, manufacturers, technologists of all kinds to showcase their wares. It took place in Chicago at an artificially created city, the Great White City. And it was in one respect, ahm, a vision of the future. This was where America was going. This was where the world was going and Americans liked to think of themselves as on the cutting edge of the future. It was kind of ironic that the fair began in the autumn of 1893 shortly after the -- well, the panic of 1893 which led to the worst depression in American history. And so through much of the exposition, which lasted into the next year, Americans were confronted with this irony that, on the one hand, the exposition showed the great promise of the future and at the same time the reality of the present was -- was quite different.


INT: Describe the depression.

BRANDS: Well, the depression of the 1890s followed the so called "panic of 1893" which, in turn, was the result of the withdrawal of foreign capital from American capital markets. This triggered a financial panic which spread into the -- the manufacturing realm, resulted in the lay-off of tens of thousands of people. It provoked a considerable amount of labor violence, the worst railway strike in American history, which began at the Pullman Works in Illinois and spread across the entire American rail network. By 1895, hundreds of thousands of people were out of work and the economy was more stagnant than it had ever been in American history.

INT: Can you talk about Frederick Jackson Turner and his speech on the exposition and what it meant to the depression?

BRANDS: At the Columbian Exposition, Frederick Jackson Turner, who at the time was a relatively unknown historian, delivered a paper on the significance of the frontier in American history. Turner pointed out that the 1890 census had revealed that there was no longer a frontier in a demographic sense and he thought this was quite significant because, as he saw it, the frontier was the most formative influence in American history. Now that there was no frontier, he was unsure, and many people who read his paper and were persuaded by it, were unsure what the future portended for the United States. There was a particular poignancy and particular credibility that was lent to this interpretation by the onset of the depression that began in 1893. So Turner could make the case that the first and great era of American history had ended, and the depression seemed to make the case that the new era was going to be much different and, quite conceivably, much worse.

INT: Why were so many intellectuals, Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, taken in by this theory?


BRANDS: One of the striking things about Turner's thesis was that it appealed more readily to intellectuals and to members of the elite, who probably never would have gone out to the frontier. Curiously, there was more homesteading, there was more settlement of the West after 1890 than there had been before, but the idea of the frontier meant a lot even to people who never went out to the frontier themselves. And they could look at the development of American history, and they could see that democracy, as front — as Turner put it, reformed itself every generation on the frontier. Now with no frontier, something else had to provide that -- that formative influence and, even more importantly, something else had to distinguish the United States from the European powers. It had been the frontier. The frontier wasn't there anymore. What would it be at this point? Turner couldn't say, and nobody knew.

INT: Was there any expansionism sentiment associated with the Columbian Exposition?

BRANDS: Well, that part ...


BRANDS: Expansionism per se wasn't built into the Columbian Exposition, but the whole idea behind the exposition was that technology would solve the problems of the world. The United States was one of the leaders of technology and presumably could export that technology and the power it gave Americans to other parts of the world. So even though expansion wasn't explicit in the exposition, it was certainly implicit in the mindset that had created the exposition.


INT: What was known in terms of the Philippines in the 1890s?


BRANDS: During the 1890s, it's fair to say that the Philippines were relatively unknown to most Americans. There were a few people who took particular care to consider what America's strategic role in the world might be, people like Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, who were looking for -- looking for overseas naval bases, for coaling stations for America's steam-powered fleet, who understood that the Philippines had harbors that were worthwhile, ah, that the Philippines commanded the water routes between China and Southeast Asia. So to the few people, the Philippines meant something. To most Americans, they had probably heard about them, but they knew very little in any kind of detail.

INT: Can you, um, just like in a sentence, contrast the revolution in the Philippines? Can you characterize, you know, that it was against Spain and also say what was known of this insurgency in the US versus what was known about it in Cuba?

BRANDS: To the extent that Americans knew that there was an insurgency in the Philippines, there was a vague sympathy and support. Americans have been, at least rhetorically, supportive of anti-colonialist, anti-imperial movements from the time of the American Revolution. So if there was a nationalist movement that was revolting against what was seen as a corrupt Spanish empire, more power to 'em. But it was far away and compared to the immediacy of the Cuban Revolution, of the insurgency in Cuba which Americans knew all about, the Philippines were really a blank spot in the American public's perception.


INT: Contrast McKinley's and Roosevelt's ideas about war.

BRANDS: William McKinley was most reluctant to take the United States into war in 1897 or 1898. Part of this reflected his own experience. He was the last American President to have served in the Civil War, and he knew what war was like. At one point he said, "I've been through one war. I've seen the bodies stacked like cord wood, and I don't want to go through that sort of thing again." So he understood in a way that people like Theodore Roosevelt, who'd been a child during the Civil War, who had never experienced the Civil War, who had heard about the Civil War only through stories of parents, uncles, cousins, and the like, and who probably to some extent had a notion that their generation, Roosevelt's generation, had to win its spurs the way McKinley's, the older generation, already had. In addition, McKinley was much more attune to the needs and the concerns of American business than Roosevelt was. They were both Republicans, but -- but McKinley was connected through Mark Hanna, for example, his manager, to the American, ahm, industrial sector. And American business until the early part of 1898 had no desire to get into war. The country was finally pulling out of the depression and there was a -- a sense that "Let's just leave overseas adventures alone. Let's concentrate on restoring prosperity at home." Wars tend to disrupt things. They're good for certain sectors of the economy, but they're -- they're very bad for other sectors of the economy. And at that point, McKinley and American businessmen wanted to keep things calm and stable. And that's why their reluctance to war.


INT: Speak about unification of the country at the time.

BRANDS: One of the most obvious characteristics of American society during the 1890s was a feeling that the country was splitting apart. There were various divisions that were opening up, class divisions, racial divisions, urban-rural divisions, divisions between creditors, debtors, and so forth. Various commentators during the 1890s remarked on that, and there was a search for solutions to this problem. How do we bring the country back together again? What can unify the country? Various solutions were proposed. People like Edward Bellamy proposed, ahm, socialism. Ahm, people like, ah, the Populists advocated free silver as a way of bringing the -- the debtor class back into the mainstream. Nothing worked until the Spanish-American War came along. Now, this is not to say that this desire for unity, this desire for reunification caused the war, by no means. But when the war came, Americans were able to rally behind McKinley's call for volunteers. They were able to rally behind the Army, the Navy, ah, in a patriotic pursuit of this national purpose. And whatever the causes of the war, one of the consequences of the war was to pull the country together in a way it hadn't been for many years. In fact, you could argue that this sort of completes the reunification of the country, that after the Civil War, Reconstruction hadn't quite done it and this allowed Americans from North and South both to fight on the same side, as they hadn't for over a generation. John Hay called it a "splendid little war" and in the sense of reunifying the country, it was.

INT: What about McKinley's appeal to certain confederate …Wheeler, for example?

BRANDS: As a Union general, McKinley was fully war of the divisiveness of the Civil War. He also was aware, as President during the 1890s, of the need to include the South, of the need to include ex-Confederates in the war effort. And so he took particular pains to appoint veterans of the Civil War to top positions during the Spanish-American War. And it was his way of broadening the base of support for the war effort. It didn't hurt that it would improve Republican chances in the South.


INT: Describe the battle and the response to the victory.

BRANDS: The war opened with the Battle of Manila Bay at the beginning of May, 1898. To the astonishment of most Americans, who were utterly unaware of the presence of Commodore Dewey in the Philippines or of the intentions of the Navy Department, ahm, to begin operations in the Philippines, Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in about six hours with minimal losses to his own -- to his own fleet. The result was a terrific victory for the United States and when the news got back to the US, Americans rejoiced as they hadn't since -- well, since the Civil War. The advantage here was that everybody could cheer, everybody North and South, for an American victory in a way that they hadn't been able to during the Civil War. Kids were named for Dewey. They were victory marches ...



BRANDS: Prior to the declaration of war in April, 1898, Americans had been divided on the wisdom of going to war. But war was declared and then when Dewey delivered this victory just weeks later, it erased all doubt that this had been a good idea. Ahm, you know, tremendous victory is terrific for the party that had advocated war. Dewey was the most famous man in America. Children were named for him. He began to have thoughts of running for President. Ahm, he was fated up and down the -- the East Coast and all over the country.

INT: Now why the Phil – Why, why did we attack the Philippines first?

BRANDS: The short answer to -- the principle reason that the Americans attacked the Philippines first was that's where the Spanish fleet was. Theodore Roosevelt and other people in the Navy Department before the outbreak of war understood that although the cause of war was the situation in Cuba, the war would be against Spain. And anything Spain could bring to bear in that war would be something that American forces should attack. Dewey had the American fleet in the Pacific. The Spanish fleet was located in the Philippines. Roosevelt sent the order to Dewey, "As soon as the war breaks out, head for the Philippines and take on the Spanish fleet." And this was obviously not public knowledge, and so the fact that the American Pacific fleet was even in the Philippines and that it had destroyed the Spanish fleet, ah, was brand news to Americans. And so it was both with amazement and gratification that they learned of Dewey's great victory.

INT: Can you describe the meeting aboard the Olympia between Dewey and Aguinaldo?

BRANDS: When Dewey was heading for the Philippines from Hong Kong, he gave a ride to Aguinaldo, who had left the country and took Aguinaldo back to the Philippines. Exactly what he was going to do with Aguinaldo there, ahm, he probably didn't know. Now a dispute arose as to exactly what Dewey promised to Aguinaldo, if anything. Aguinaldo said that Dewey promised American support for the Philippine insurgency against the Spanish. Dewey says that he did no such thing. There's no contemporary documentation to be able to resolve this controversy, but one of the results was bad blood between the United States and the Philippine insurgents from the very outset.


INT: Talk about McKinley's decision to keep the Philippines.

BRANDS: As the end of the fighting approached, McKinley had to figure out what to do with the Philippines. The United States was not really in control of the islands; it controlled the area around Manila, but in terms of military control of the whole place, that was out of the question. But a separate question was, what should the United States attempt to gain from Spain at a peace treaty? Would this include, for example, American annexation of the Philippines? McKinley hesitated for a long time before he made the decision. He had to weigh various considerations. On the one hand, he had no desire for the United States to be an imperial power and to annex the Philippines would saddle the United States with responsibility for governing the place. And McKinley was not an imperialist in any traditional sense of the word. On the other hand, he realized that American forces had expended a great deal of effort and some lives in gaining such control of the Philippines as the United States exercised at the end of the fighting. The American flag had been run up over the walls of Manila and so he couldn't very lightly pull that down. He saw what a popular cause the war had been. To turn around at the end of the war and simply hand over to somebody one of the principal fruits of the war seemed to be bad politics. It might also be bad business, as he argued, because McKinley and many others of his generation were convinced that the Philippines, if they were granted independence by the United States, would not be allowed to maintain that independence. Some other country, Germany, for example, which was aggressively pursuing colonies in that area, Japan, which had taken control of Korea and looked to, ah -- looked willing to expand its influence elsewhere in the region, might take control of the Philippines. So, as McKinley saw it, it wasn't a question of American control versusPhilippine independence. It was American control versus control by some other power. And McKinley came to the conclusion that it would be better for the United States and it would be better for the Filipinos if the United States controlled the Philippines, rather than some other country.


INT: Talk about how McKinley went down to the White House ...


BRANDS: There's a story about how McKinley finally came to his decision regarding the disposition of the Philippines. As he told this story to a group of visiting ministers, so you have to perhaps discount it on that regard. Ahm, he spent a great deal of time in prayer and he prayed for guidance as to what he should do about the Philippines. And after long sleepless nights, the answer came to him, and he realized that he couldn't give up the Philippines to another power. That would be ignoble and bad business. He couldn't turn the Philippines loose because they -- they wouldn't -- they weren't prepared to govern themselves. So the only solution was for the United States to take control of the Philippines and, as he said, "to uplift and Christianize" the Filipinos and make them ready for independence and -- and self-government.


INT: Characterize the Senate debate over the Treaty of Paris.

BRANDS: The US Senate has historically billed itself as the most deliberative body in the world, and often it doesn't live up to that reputation. But in the debate over the ratification of the Treaty of Paris which would determine the future of the Philippines and the course of American foreign policy for the next many years, I think it did. In fact, ahm, despite the over-blown rhetoric on both sides, there was a critical issue that was being debated. Should the United States become an imperial power? And there were those, like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge and Albert Beveridge, who contended that the United States should become an imperial power. This was the age of empire. The United States was the greatest and most civilized of the Western powers. If the United States didn't become an empire, then foreign countries would be left at the mercy of less worthy imperial powers. On the other hand, there were those who contended that empires were something for other countries to have, but not for the United States. The basic difference between the United States and the European powers was a reverence for democracy, a belief that people ought to be able to govern themselves. For the United States to overturn that tradition by annexing the Philippines, would lead to the same sort of ill consequences that had befallen the Roman Republic when Rome became an empire, and they didn't want to see that happen.

INT: What was the outcome of the debate?

BRANDS: The expansionists, the annexationists, the pro-ratificationists won. It was a close vote, and it largely turned on the instructions of William Jennings Bryan, who was the titular leader of the Democratic Party, to allow his supporters to vote for annexation in the hope that Bryan could make an issue of imperialism in the 1900 election.

INT: Describe the 1900 election in which McKinley won.

BRANDS: Bryan had hoped to make the election of 1900 a referendum on imperialism. It didn't work out that way. Almost never do foreign policy questions decide American elections. It didn't in 1900. McKinley was re-elected on the prosperity that he had brought -- that his administration had brought to the country after the horrible depression of the 1890s. However, despite the fact that the Republicans had won on -- principally on domestic issues, the fact that Bryan had raised the imperial question allowed the Republicans to claim their victory as a victory for imperialism, for the expansionist policy that people like Roosevelt, Lodge, Mahan, Beveridge had espoused.

INT: Do you know how the Philippines, the Filipinos were sort of hoping that Bryan would win, they were sort of continuing the campaign… What did it mean for the Filipinos that McKinley won?

BRANDS: The Filipinos naturally hoped that the anti-imperialist party would win in the United States. They hoped that an anti-imperialist President would somehow change the results of the ratification debate in the Senate and grant independence to the Philippines. It didn't happen. They were disappointed and they were forced to live with the consequences.


INT: Can you characterize the war in the Philippines?

BRANDS: The war in the Philippines was very demoralizing for the United States, both for American troops and for the American public at home. Americans had rightly criticized the Spanish for their treatment of the insurgence in Cuba, but Americans in the Philippines found themselves in an analogous position. They were fighting a guerrilla war against an army that was not suited to American conventional tactics. The United States forces were compelled to adopt anti-insurgent, anti-guerrilla strategies that were very much like those that had been used, ah, and, again, had been rightly criticized by the Americans and that had been used by the Spanish in Cuba. This led to reprisals. It led to various atrocities. It was nearly impossible to pick out the insurgents from mere civilians. When doubts arose, Americans often put the burden of doubt on the shoulders of the Filipinos and used harsh, if not brutal, tactics against civilians and insurgents alike. It was a long war. It lasted much longer than the war against the Spanish. It was a dirty war. It led to all sorts of recriminations. It led to extremely bitter feelings, ah, on the part of the Filipinos against the United States, and it led to a demoralization in the United States. (Phone Rings)


BRANDS: The brutal nature of the war in the Philippines really disillusioned Americans, both on the possibility of governing an empire in the way that they had been led to believe they might, and on the whole notion of empire. It's striking that American enthusiasm for empire peaked in 1898 during the war against Spain. The enthusiasm quickly waned as the war against the Philippines dragged on. Americans never after that displayed any enthusiasm for taking more colonies. Later, when the United States would fine itself in a similar situation during the 1960s fighting a war in Vietnam, historical memories of precursors in the Philippines came to light again and, interestingly, Americans found themselves fighting in the same way, in the same part of the world, using the same sort of tactics and became equally demoralized and the sort of reaction that occurred after Vietnam mirrored the earlier reaction after the war in the Philippines.



BRANDS: When the war in the Philippines finally ended, Americans did their best to forget it, to put the memories out of mind. And they succeeded for a long time. When the United States went into Vietnam in the 1960s, however, historical parallels were drawn to the earlier war. There were -- they were strikingly similar. Americans were fighting a dirty war in Asia against a guerrilla force they often couldn't find and didn't understand. The war dragged on and on. It was very disillusioning, and the reaction against the war in Vietnam after the United States belatedly pulled out mirrored the reaction against, ah, the Philippine War 60 years before.


BRANDS: Americans annexed the Philippines with some ambivalence, because American traditions were such that the United States ought not to be a colonial power, ought not to control other territories against the will of those other territories. But in the flush of enthusiasm for the Spanish war, Americans said, "Okay. We'll go ahead and do it." The Philippine war punctured that enthusiasm and by the end of the war, Americans simply had no stomach for any more colonies. Ahm, so Americans discovered that they really weren't cut out to be an imperial power. To the imperialists like Roosevelt, this was a great disappointment. He thought that the United States would be better off, the world would be better off if the United States were an imperial power. But even Roosevelt himself was forced to conclude that the Americans were not an imperial people. He said that the -- the Philippines had become America's achilles heel. He understood that America still controlled the Philippines but simply wouldn't take responsibility for governing it, for defending it. This became a source of disappointment for him. It became a source of tragedy for the Filipinos during the Second World War, when the United States still nominally controlled the place, but hadn't taken sufficient measures to defend it against attack by the Japanese.


INT: Talk about McKinley's fascination and transferring power to Roosevelt.

BRANDS: The assassination of William McKinley in September of 1901 marked a critical turning point in the history of American foreign relations. McKinley was a reluctant imperialist, an imperialist, but reluctant. Theodore Roosevelt, who became President upon McKinley's death, was an enthusiastic imperialist. McKinley had taken the United States onto the world stage with hesitation and with an unwillingness to exploit the opportunities that were available. Roosevelt grabbed the opportunities with both hands and made the most of them.

INT: Talk about how TR's generation really hadn't experienced war and what it meant for him.

BRANDS: Theodore Roosevelt before he became President, was an ardent advocate of war, war for particular national purposes, but also the idea of war. War would temper the soul of the nation. War would exercise the -- the national will and the muscles of the nation the way -- the moral fiber of the nation the way physical exercise, ah, strengthens the physical fiber of a nation. So Roosevelt was at the head of the party of the war in the era -- in the period leading up to the Spanish War. To a considerable extent, I think this reflected the fact that Roosevelt's generation had not fought a war. It -- the generation of its parents had fought the Civil War and demonstrated its bravery and its valor then. Roosevelt's generation still had to prove its worth. Now, interestingly, Roosevelt seemed to have gotten most of that out of his system during the Spanish-American War, so that after he became President, he dropped the rhetoric a-- about war being an ennobling cause. He never sent American troops into battle. He hesitated before sending American troops peacefully into reoccupy Cuba. He understood that the responsibilities of power constrained him, prevented him from saying the sorts of things he had said while he was a mere Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Interestingly, after he left the White House, he -- and after the First World War began, he became a war hawk once again. So with Roosevelt there's also an element of belligerent talk as a way of getting attention. When he wasn't in the White House, he would get attention by speaking very bellicosely. When he was in the White House, when he was President, the attention was on him anyway. He didn't need to do that sort of thing.


INT: Talk about the benefits of American colonization in both Cuba and the Philippines as well as the detriments.

BRANDS: As Roosevelt and the other imperialists had predicted, American control of the Philippines and American de facto control of Cuba brought certain benefits to both of those countries. Americans brought education of a sort that hadn't existed before. They built physical infrastructure. They modernized the administration of those countries. And so to that extent the Imperialist Party fulfilled what it had said it was going to do, but, on the other hand, to a degree that Roosevelt and the other imperialists didn't fully appreciate, the only way to learn self-government is to govern yourself. And as long as the Philippines, as long as Cuba remained under the explicit or de facto control of the United States, the developments towards self-government were constantly short-circuited.


BRANDS: As to what historical perspectives can be learned from the perspective of 1998 looking back on 1898, one hesitates to draw any explicit parallels, but I suppose the simplest lesson is that things almost never turn out the way you think they're going to. The US went into the Philippines with high hopes. Within five years those hopes were dashed and the US was left for the -- for the next half-century dealing with the consequences of an imperialist venture gone awry. What do you make of that for the future? I don't know. (Laughs)


BRANDS: Oh, July 4th became a big day in Philippine history.


BRANDS: That's when independence was granted in 1946, but …

INT: Talk about racism in the 1890s in general.

BRANDS: During the 1890s, most Americans of European background were unabashed racists. Ah, some of 'em were abashed, but for the most part they believed that the -- the white race, by which they meant northern Europeans, and especially the Anglo-Saxon branch of that race, ahm, stood at the apex of civilization. They felt that Anglo-Saxons had a right, and in some cases a responsibility, to spread civilization to those that they unashamedly called "the lesser races." People like Theodore Roosevelt, for example, fully believed in what Rudyard Kipling, a friend of Roosevelt's, described as "the white man's burden." And it was the responsibility of the most advanced races to bring civilization to the more backward races in exactly the same way that adults educate children. Children are backward with respect to adults. Ah, races like Filipinos, for example, Cubans, certainly black Africans, were retarded with respect to the white races. And so it was an understood part of this imperialist ethic that the white race was superior and that it was a responsibility to spread the advancement -- ah, to advance civilization among "the lesser breeds", as they called them.

INT: Was McKinley a racist?

BRANDS: He wasn't as open in stating those sorts of things as Roosevelt and others were, but he subscribed essentially to it.


INT: Talk about how policy-makers dealt with the fact of the distance of the Philippines.

BRANDS: Nowadays it's hard to imagine how far the Philippines -- how far away from the United States the Philippines seemed in 1898. Most Americans, including President McKinley by his own admission, had to get out a map of the world, a globe, to figure out where the Philippines were. It was really at the back of beyond then, and this had sort of two effects. One is, it rendered Mc-- it rendered Dewey's victory in the Philippines, more amazing and more noteworthy, that American forces could win a great victory clear on the far side of the world. And so to that extent it played into the hands of the imperialists. On the other side, however, it reminded Americans how far away this was and how unlikely it was that the United States would ever have any material interests in the Philippines. Therefore, the United States ought to get out of there and leave the Philippines to the Filipinos or whoever else might take over.


BRANDS: At the same time that the United States was feeling the forces of division, and many people saw it falling apart, there were other countervailing forces that tended to unify the country. For example, the railroads had created a national market, a transportation network that made it possible, easy for Americans to get from coast to coast in comfort and in a -- only a short space of time. Telephone, the telegraph, other advanced technologies were bringing Americans closer together. In the manufacturing realm, the great trusts were unifying the country in a way that many people found alarming. So there was an odd juxtaposition here of these divisive elements and at the same time of these unifying elements. And it led to what at times was an almost schizophrenic mindset among the American people during the 1890s.


INT: Was McKinley a Union general?

BRANDS: I'm pretty sure he was a general. I wouldn't swear to it. Yeah, I think he was a brigadier general.


BRANDS: Actually there were a lot of people who were promoted to general during the fighting. That wasn't a permanent rank. Ahm, but that's something I'd want to look up.


BRANDS: As a Union veteran of the Civil War, McKinley had seen a real war and he understood what it meant for society. In fact, at one point he said, "I've been through one war. I've seed -- I've seen the dead bodies piled up and I don't want to go through that again." McKinley knew what war meant in a way that people like Theodore Roosevelt, who hadn't been through the war, who'd been too young for the Civil War, didn't understand. McKinley's generation had won it's spurs already. Roosevelt's generation still had to win its spurs.


INT: Any anecdotes, i.e., the Senate debate on the Treaty of Paris, et cetera?

BRANDS: The Senate debate over ratification of the Treaty of Paris brought out the best and worst in both sides. Ahm, among those opposing the imperialist course of the United States were some who contended that the United States shouldn't take control of other people. Ahm, there are others who said, "Yeah, we shouldn't take control of other people, because those other people aren't even worthy to be part of an American political system." Some of the most scurrilous kinds of remarks were circulated regarding the nature of the people in the Philippines. Some -- one Senate commentator described people who had stripped skins and blue streaks on their body. It was utterly ludicrous, but, nonetheless, it has an impact in the debate.



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